This Orchestra Played 'Carmen' ... Using Smartphones and Tablets

What is a work of art in the age of mechanical digital reproduction?

On April 30, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra got together to do something utterly ordinary: play Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. One element made this performance slightly less ordinary, though: The orchestra played the entire opera using "instruments" made of smartphones and tablets. Led by conductor Libor Pesek, the performance feature 60 musicians making use of 227 different devices -- all of which were linked through wifi. 

The stunt -- and, orchestra and all, it's fair to call the performance a stunt -- was sponsored by BNP Paribas to publicize the launch of 'Hello Bank!' (yep, exclamation mark included in the name), which claims to be Europe's first fully digital mobile bank. The product doing the publicity, in this case, was not so much the symphony itself, but the YouTube video you see above.

This Carmen is, in other words, an intricate advertisement. But as all good ads do, it blends commercialism and artistry to great effect. What's remarkable about this particular performance of the symphonic opera is that, if you took away the visuals, it would be extremely difficult (impossible, this only-occasional symphony-goer would say) to tell the difference between this performance of Carmen and, say, the Vienna Philharmonic's performance of it using analog instruments. So much of what we hear -- so much of the culture we now consume -- is digitally mediated. To the extent that the lines between the creation of artistic products and the dissemination of them become blurred. The musicians here are demonstrating what all professional musicians do: talent, practice, deft management of musical tools; what, ultimately, makes the orchestra aided by smartphones so different from the one using analog instruments? 

There's a strain of Walter Benjamin in the European bank's clever ad campaign: It asks its audience, whether in-person or convened across the web, to consider the source of the orchestra's artistry. What kind of performance are the musicians here actually engaging in? What is a work of art in the age of digital reproduction? As conductor Pesek explains of his show, "It's all about new technologies and how technologies can change our life."

This kind of tech-aided instrumentation will likely become more widespread -- in the artistic world as well as the commercial -- as musicians experiment with new forms of sound production. Which leads to an urgent question: If this tech-aided instrumentation becomes more common, do we need a new word to designate the collective of people who use it? An augsemble? A synthony? A dorkestra?

Suggestions appreciated.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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